Richard Pitino walked into the postgame news conference, his hair still matted with sweat.
“I look like I just got into a boxing match,” he joked.
In fact, the coach had just directed the Gophers men’s basketball team to its first two-game winning streak of conference play, after it had held off Purdue 62-58 on Saturday at Williams Arena. Getting his players to comfortably secure the victory, however, was apparently still a bit too much to ask.
The Gophers led by as many 15 points halfway through the second half, but that lead was only two when senior point guard DeAndre Mathieu missed the front end of a one-and-one with 23 seconds left, giving Purdue a chance to tie or take the lead.
It could have been more of the same for the Gophers (15-9, 4-7 Big Ten), who have lost six conference games by one or two possessions.
Instead, on a play that seemed to confuse everyone but the officials, Mo Walker strong-armed Vince Edwards’ tying layup attempt with 6 seconds to play, and Andre Hollins wound up with the rebound. The senior guard was quickly fouled and hit both free throws on the other end to clinch the victory.
“I just tried to get there and put my hands straight up,” Walker said. “Luckily the ref didn’t call a foul, I know sometimes they call that. But I feel like [Edwards] just put the ball right in my hands, and once he did that I just grabbed it.”
It was the final critical play for a Gophers defense that played the star after an ugly first half in which Minnesota hit only one field goal in the final 9 minutes, 8 seconds, arriving at the break trailing 31-27. But in a span of 2:12 just after the start of the second half, the Gophers’ press, led by Mathieu, collected five steals to spark a 14-0 run that put Purdue (15-9, 7-4) down 41-31.
The Gophers also used their matchup zone to turn Purdue over 23 times in all — their Big Ten best — on a season-high-tying 17 steals, scoring 29 points off turnovers. All five Gophers starters had at least two steals, including Carlos Morris, who had five in the second half alone.
It was a continuation of what the defense did to Nebraska in the Gophers’ previous game, a 60-42 victory Jan. 31. Over the past two games, the Gophers have forced 43 turnovers and totaled 27 steals.
The Gophers extended their lead over the Boilermakers to 48-33 on Morris’ final steal, when the forward followed Walker’s three-point play by intercepting a pass and moving in for a layup while being fouled. The announced crowd of 13,041 leapt to its feet, and Pitino, having already lost both his jacket and his tie, was jumping and screaming right along with the fans.
“I’m really not that fiery on the sidelines, but I needed to be today to get our guys going and playing with some emotion,” said Pitino, who joked that if the game had gone into overtime, he might have had to coach in a T-shirt. “It was so hot in there, I figured I might as well get a workout in and sweat a little bit.”
But Purdue’s long-range Hail Marys nearly spoiled the effort. The Boilermakers missed their first seven shots from beyond three-point range in the second half but then made seven of nine down the stretch — including three that were banked in — to eradicate what felt like a decisive lead.
Purdue crept back within 53-49 with 5:21 to go, but Joey King responded with a three to give the Gophers some breathing room. Jon Octeus then hit back-to-back threes — he finished with 17 points — to put the Boilermakers within 60-58 with 61 seconds to play.
But Purdue got no closer.
“That was ridiculous,” said Hollins, who finished with 18 points and five rebounds. “Octeus banked two shots in and he hit some others and other players that have hit less than 10 threes on the year made threes. So it happens like that, but we pulled it out.”